Broken-Hearted American Humorist: Richard Brautigan Reconsidered

by Gregory Kent Stephenson?

Like many of those who first read Brautigan in the late 60's and early 70's, I was shocked and saddened to learn of his suicide; and like many others, I had not read his books in years and was not acquainted with his later works. Recently, while browsing in a second-hand bookshop, I came across some of the early titles. My own copies had long since disappeared so I bought the books and re-read them. The pleasure that they gave me and the interest they aroused encouraged me to search out his later books in used bookshops and at the library, and within a few weeks I had read all of Brautigan's fiction and most of his poetry, in roughly chronological sequence. Reading the books in such a concentrated fashion and in the wake of the author's tragic death caused me to reflect on them more than I otherwise might have done and to notice their continuity and their essential unity. The following notes are the result of my personal reconsideration of the writing of Richard Brautigan.

Although Brautigan became something of a cult figure for the counterculture of the late 60's and early 70's, it is hard for me to see that his work possesses any particular qualities or characteristics in common with either the psychedelic millenialism of the "freaks" or the militant radicalism of the New Left. The author's nostalgic sense of American history, his essential pessimism concerning human affairs, the frequent references to drinking and fishing, firearms and hunting in his works, together with his disengagement from politics and social issues would all seem to be at odds with the counterculture spirit. In terms of his age, (born in 1935) his personal friendships, (Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley), his long-time San Francisco residence (since 1954), his early publications in City Lights Journal and Evergreen Review, and the preoccupations of his books, Brautigan really has much more in common with the writers of the Beat Generation, and would be more appropriately considered as a late Beat writer.

In a larger sense, Brautigan takes his place in a line of American humorists, a tradition with which he identified himself, according to his friend Ed Dorn. In Brautigan's surrealist leaps of language and imagery there are echoes of the tall-tale of the American frontier and the extravagances of the 19th century American humorists Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby. Brautigan also has affinities with Mark Twain in the use of natural, colloquial speech, the cultivation of a humor based on exaggeration and understatement, the employment of an innocent or naive persona/narrator, and a sense of the ludicrous and the absurd that is ultimately founded upon malaise, upon a vision of violence and terror. (Though unlike Twain, Brautigan is never biting or bitter.)

Incongruous as it may seem, I think that Brautigan's closest affinity, both stylistically and thematically, is with Ernest Hemingway. The simple, declarative sentences strung together with the conjunction "and," the flat tone, the plain language and the laconic dialogue that characterize Brautigan's prose derive unmistakably from the Hemingway style. Brautigan's ingenius innovation consists in using this dry, terse, matter-of-fact style as a vehicle to depict strange, amazing and wonderous events, and in linking it to elaborate and surreal similes. This curious duality or incongruity, this inherent tension in Brautigan's style reflects his central thematic preoccupation, which I shall attempt to clarify below.

The common theme of both Hemingway and Brautigan is confrontation with and resistence to the Void. By the Void I do not mean the Buddhist sense of the term, but what I suppose is the existentialist use of the word, that is: the universe perceived as nothingness, as chaos, without purpose or meaning, and the world conceived as a place of violence, cruelty and destruction, inevitable decay, irresistible deterioration and irredeemable loss; the world viewed as a place of terror, horror, pain, and sorrow, of empty life and empty death. Although neither author refers directly to this vision of the Void, it is the unseen, unspoken essence of their art. Hemingway's strategy to resist the Void was courage, "grace under pressure." Brautigan's response is imagination, the invention of an environment in defiance of space and time.

There are numerous echoes from, and allusions to, Hemingway's writing throughout Brautigan's works but the most important shared symbolic image is that of trout fishing. For both authors it represent a refuge from the terror of the Void. In the Hemingway short story, "Now I Lay Me," the neurasthenic narrator who is afraid to sleep in the dark uses fantasies of trout fishing as a way to occupy his mind during the long, lonely hours of the night, a way to avoid thinking. In the same manner, the narrator of "Big Two-Hearted River," cultivates trout fishing as a discipline and a distraction, again to circumvent thinking, to elude the terror of the Void. Similarly, trout fishing for Richard Brautigan represents a ritual of the imagination, a gesture against and a sanctuary from all the tragedy, sorrow and anxiety of life in the world. "I love fishing tackle stores," he writes, "They are cathedrals of childhood romance, for I spent thousands of hours worshipping the possibilities of rods and reels that led like a religion to rivers and lakes waiting to be fished in the imagination where I would fish every drop of water on this planet." (The Tokyo-Montana Express, London, 1981, p. 27) The image of fishing as a metaphor for the imagination is recurrent throughout Brautigan's work and is particularly prominent in his first and last novels.

In each of Brautigan's books the conflict between the Void/Reality and the Imagination assumes different guises or metaphors, but the terms of the struggle remain constant. In the author's first novel, Trout Fishing in America, (written 1961, published 1967) characters such as the Kool-Aid Wino, the bookstore owner, Trout Fishing in America himself, and, of course, the narrator embody the imagination; while characters such as Trout Fishing in America Shorty and the Mayor of the Twentieth Century, together with all the images of death, abandonment, desolation and loss, culminating in the Cleveland Wrecking Yard, suggest the agencies and operations of the Void.

In A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) the conflict is configured between Lee Mellon with his total freedom from social conventions and convential reality, and the square world of conformity, repression and acquisition (personified by Johnston Wade) and the dreary, sterile, oppressive, inflexible world of fact emblemized by the tables of attrition and the lists of historically verifiable names of Confederate generals. So complete is the victory of the imagination in this narrative that the book refuses to end but instead continues, to produce alternative endings at the rate of 186,000 per second. Likewise in the next novel, In Watermelon Sugar, (1968) it is the magic of the imagination (represented by a world made of watermelon sugar and by the idyllic, pastoral iDEATH community) that triumphs over the Void (the tigers, inBOIL and his allies).

With The Abortion (1971) however, Brautigan's work enters another phase, a crisis of faith which is reflected in the general slackness, tediousness and insubstantiality of his fiction during this period. In these books of what might be called the middle period it is the Void that is victorious, the violence and sterility of the Real that pervails. In The Abortion the central metaphors of the struggle are the library, a haven for the imagination and for love, and the abortion clinic in Tijuana, a place of physical death and of the death of romantic dreams. After his visit to the abortion clinic, the narrator is unable to re-enter the library, and must face a life of exile in the real world. In The Hawkline Monster (1974) the contending forces are the beautiful and sensuous Hawkline sisters and the malevolent, life-destroying Hawkline monster. Although the monster is ultimately vanquished, the book ends with images of death and loss: romantic love proves ephemeral and both sisters are killed in accidents soon afterward anyway.

The failure of love (the highest act of the imagination) and the triumph of violence are the themes of Brautigan's next two novels: Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1974) and Sombrero Fallout (1976). It is only in Dreaming of Babylon (1978) that a tentative hope for and belief in the imagination begins to reassert itself. C. Card, the inept detective-hero and narrator of the novel is a fool and a failure in the estimation of the world, but in his own inner world of reverie (or is it another, higher dimension of reality?) which he calls Babylon, he is competent, heroic, successful, admired and loved. The dialectic of the novel is left unresolved but the imagination has at least a compensatory function here, and certainly there is also a strong implication that ultimately it is the others who are fools and failures for they will never inhabit a world of beauty and grace and mystery such as Babylon.

Brautigan's last two books, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980) and So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, (1982) represent a third phase of his writing: a new confidence in and reaffirmation of the life of the imagination. These final novels are comparable in achievement to the author's early works: taut, subtle, wry, wistful, tender, inventive, and alive with the author's special comic/sad compassionate vision.

The Tokyo-Montana Express is a collection of short prose pieces, precise, concise observations and notations linked together without an overall plot, something in the manner of Trout Fishing in America. Each piece is a vignette of vision by which the author shows us how to discover an alternative imaginative reality within (or beside) the conventional, objective reality in which we exist. By fixing his attention and awareness on apparently ordinary and trivial objects and events (umbrellas, beds, peaches, chickens, leaves) Brautigan sees them anew, exercising a creative perception that transforms the dull, quotidian world into a realm of marvels, mysteries and wonders. (Or, we might say that he de-bewitches the world.) Although the author's awareness of death and loss is no less keenly felt than in his previous works, The Tokyo-Montana Express affirms the counter-reality of the imagination.

The title of Brautigan's last novel, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, offers a perspective on the theme of the book: resistance to the erosive action of the Void, the continual, inexorable process of deterioration and diminishment and destruction of life and matter, and its corresponding action against the spirit. (In a sense, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away would make an appropriate title for Brautigan's entire oeuvre.) Again, in this novel the contending groups of images are those of death and those of the imagination.

Despite the prevalence of death and loss in the story, despite even the narrator's involvement in the accidental shooting death of a friend, it is the image of a transcendent act of imagination which frames and dominates the novel: the unnamed man and wife who, though of modest means, create a world of magic and grace and beauty. The quiet festivity of the outdoor-living-room which they assemble every summer evening out of their truck to fish happily in the pond represents Brautigan's most luminous, most lucid metaphor for the heroic innocence and redemptive power of the imagination.

We cannot understand or explain Brautigan's life and death by his writing, nor his writing by his life and death. His books have their own life. Why did Brautigan commit suicide? I don't know. But the act does not signify a failure of his art.

After the cult adulation of the hippie era and his subsequent neglect, Richard Brautigan deserves to be reconsidered, to be rediscovered. He is an important voice in our literature, and innovative and original writer who recorded an eccentric and essential vision of the world. The best of his writing will surely endure.

The Signal? 1(2)
1988: 28-30

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